Inclusivity Doesn’t Cut It – Toward a New Conversation on Intermarriage

by Harold Berman

Interfaith families and people with disabilities. Last week, for the first time, I saw these two populations discussed in the same article. Ed Case, in his thoughtful article for eJewish Philanthropy, drew an analogy between the two, wondering aloud if recent efforts to galvanize funders around inclusivity for people with disabilities should be applied to inclusivity for interfaith families.

In many ways, comparing people with disabilities to people in interfaith marriages is a curious analogy. Then again, my own life experience connects deeply to both populations. Although I had a Bar Mitzvah, I grew up without the benefit of the “immersive Jewish experiences” that Ed Case mentions. Upon reaching adulthood, I married a Christian woman. She was deeply rooted in her faith, and in fact was the Minister of Music in a mega-church in the heart of the Bible Belt. Like many who intermarried, I had a strong Jewish identity, but lacking a strong Jewish education or observance, didn’t see how my being Jewish or her being Christian presented any issues for our married life. And besides, we were in love, and so nothing else mattered.

We continued as an interfaith family for 16 years, during which we had a very strong marriage, while at the same time addressing myriad issues common to interfaith families. Today, however, we are a fully Jewish family living in Israel. Today, everyone in my immediate family is Jewish and lives an intensive Jewish life. I often forget that I am the only member of my family who was born Jewish.

Our journey was neither simple nor short. Nor is it a journey every intermarried family would want to take. But after meeting not a few families who had done what we did, yet finding no account by a husband and wife of the journey from intermarried to Jewish, we wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope to fill this void. Published recently, we have already heard from numerous readers telling us that our journey has inspired them to deepen their Jewish practice – people who grew up observant and sometimes take their Judaism for granted, people who became Ba’al Teshuva and were reminded of why they did so, people who converted and related their own struggles and triumphs to ours, and yes – people who are intermarried and are looking for a reason to engage more deeply in Judaism.

Beyond these exchanges, we have been working with some amazing people and situations through our new program, J-Journey.org, designed to provide a first-ever peer support system for intermarried families interested in exploring becoming observant Jewish families. These experiences have convinced us that much of our Jewish communal conversation around interfaith marriage needs to be re-evaluated and re-focused. I share with Ed Case a deep belief in the necessity of inclusivity for intermarried families, but believe that we need to place that inclusivity in a specific context where it will produce meaningful results.

Although I still find Ed Case’s analogy between interfaith families and people with disabilities to be curious, the world of disabilities has touched my life in ways that may offer some insight. Ed Case began his article by citing Jay Ruderman’s work galvanizing funders around issues of inclusion for people with disabilities and wishing a similar effort could be made on behalf of the intermarried. As part of Jay’s profound commitment to people with disabilities, his foundation recently made a major grant to the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem, whose Development Department I was privileged to lead when I first made aliyah. The Feuerstein Institute takes a radically different approach to people with disabilities, one which has produced stunning results.

Many organizations working with people with disabilities seek inclusion by creating environments and methods that accommodate or support the disability. While such accommodation is critical, the Feuerstein Institute has a fundamentally different emphasis, which can best be described by the title of Professor Reuven Feuerstein’s seminal book, You Love Me – Don’t Accept Me As I Am. Rather than simply accommodating the disability, the Feuerstein Institute has developed a range of methods to minimize and sometimes even eliminate the disability.

While working at the Institute, I witnessed first-hand what this has meant: I have seen Down Syndrome children who went on to finish college and start careers. I have seen a stroke victim who initially couldn’t even speak or write, go on not only to reclaim those abilities, but to become an award-winning architect. I have seen people from impoverished backgrounds with minimal schooling go on to become stars in the Israeli army and in university. Surely, helping people transform is a more profound level of inclusion than merely accommodating them.

Interfaith families and people with disabilities are very different populations, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with the analogy. Still, there is a lesson to be learned.

At the risk of generalizing, we have expected too little from interfaith families. For too many years, across significant portions of our Jewish community, we have created a crisis of low expectations.

Ed Case states that, “no matter how good a job we do with immersive Jewish experiences developing strong Jewish identities, Jews will continue to intermarry.” Although this has become accepted dogma throughout much of our Jewish world, it is not entirely true. A multitude of research shows that Jews who have immersive Jewish experiences are both more likely to develop strong Jewish identities and to intermarry at a lower rate. Hebrew school attendees intermarry less than those who received no Jewish education. Day school attendees intermarry less than those who attended Hebrew school. Day school attendees through grade 12 intermarry less than those who attended through grade 8. Those who attended Jewish summer camp intermarry at lower rates than those who didn’t. Birthright attendees intermarry less than non-attendees. There is no shortage of examples showing an inverse correlation between immersive Jewish experiences and intermarriage.

Nevertheless, it is true that Jews will continue to intermarry. Not everyone enters adulthood having had immersive Jewish experiences. And even of those who do, some will intermarry nonetheless (although, at least in my own experience with intermarried families, those whose Jewish partner had immersive Jewish experiences are more likely to engage in Jewish life than those whose Jewish partner didn’t). So what about the 50% intermarriage rate that Ed Case cites? What will best work with this population? In what ways can we be inclusive that will make a difference?

First, we need to be brutally honest and recognize that our efforts, no matter how inclusive, how well-intentioned and how well executed, will be irrelevant for significant portions of the intermarried population. The ground has shifted dramatically since Ed Case founded Interfaithfamily.com over a decade ago. Today, there not only are large portions of the intermarried raising their children in two religions, but communities and organizations have sprung up to assist and celebrate their choices. A major book, written by a child of intermarriage, will be released in the fall touting “two religions is better than one” as a great choice for interfaith families. Then there are the significant number of families who have actively chosen not to raise their children in any religion. There are also those raising their children in churches, and my colleagues who work for counter-missionary organizations tell me that that is not a small number, either.

For any of these groups, our making them feel welcome is meaningless. They have chosen other communities, and already feel very included and welcome there. If there is any hope to draw back any of those families, it will need to come not simply from inclusion, but from their experiencing deep Jewish content they can’t get anywhere else.

But what about the rest of the intermarried population, the ones who may be open to making Jewish choices? Yes, we most definitely need to reach out to them. But we need to be much more than inclusive. We need to give them the most meaningful Jewish experiences possible, challenge them to reach as high as possible, and enable them to benefit as much as possible from the depth of our 3,500 year old tradition. Judaism, when presented well, is not just an amazing religion, but one that grapples profoundly with the big questions of life. Presented this way, some intermarried families will find Judaism so attractive they will want to become Jewish families. Others may not see conversion as an option, but nevertheless will want to make Judaism and the Jewish community a much bigger part of their lives.

But we haven’t really done this. Unlike the approach of the Feuerstein Institute, we haven’t imagined what interfaith families might accomplish nor given them the tools to get there. What would happen if we took 100 interfaith families and sent them on an intensive Shabbaton with the most thoughtful and dynamic Jewish teachers we could find, and then followed their progress over the next year? The results might astound us. But we don’t know. Because we haven’t really tried it. Even better, what if we sent 100 interfaith families to Israel, not for a typical mission, but for a week of intensive, hands-on learning? We might be stunned to see where those families end up. But again, we don’t know. Because we haven’t tried it. There are a thousand other ideas we’ve never tried that would take intermarried families well beyond mere inclusion.

Instead, our Jewish community has held countless “community conversations” that at the end of the day have yielded precious little. Inevitably, these community conversations feature intermarried families who express their disappointment at not having found a rabbi to marry them and the like. What if we could move beyond the litany of complaints to discover what actually attracts intermarried families to Jewish life? What if we led focus groups with a few hundred formerly intermarried families who have become Jewish families? What if we asked them what drew them to Judaism, what experiences had the deepest impact, how Judaism has made a difference in their lives? If we did that, we would have a wealth of information about what works, and what experiences we could replicate that would make intermarried families (whether or not a conversion ultimately took place) want to connect with Judaism.

But again, we don’t have that information. Because we’ve never done it.

I agree with Ed Case that the time has come for a sustained conversation with funders about interfaith families. But I envision a somewhat different conversation, one that will include more than the usual voices at the table. This is a complex issue, and such a conversation needs to include people with a wide range of views, even people who may vehemently disagree with each other. It needs to include funders, as well, who hold different views and seek different paths.

The time has come for a deeper communal conversation, one that is not simply about inclusion, but transformation. Whether we have the courage to engage in such a conversation, time will tell.

Harold Berman the co-author of Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, the first true-life account of “an intermarriage gone Jewish,” is the former Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of J-Journey.org, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews.